Tokyo's commuter train system is rightly renowned as being one of the most efficient in the world. The frequency of morning trains at rush hour on the JR Sobu line, for example - the one I take daily - is such that you don't run for a train. By the time I've made it down to the far end of the platform - which is where I have to be for getting off at the right spot at my destination station - the next train has arrived, or is just about to.
However, as a commuter, Tokyo trains can be hell at peak time. A packed midsummer train gets stiflingly hot in spite of the air conditioning - often to the point of inducing barely suppressed and palpable panic in some passengers. It's bad enough even in winter. Getting on the morning train and suffering the cruel punishment virtually hugging someone with really rancid breath, for example, is not something you can get to learn to smile about.
One popular image overseas of Japanese trains is their getting so packed that passengers routinely have to be pushed on by a guard. Since coming to Tokyo, I had regarded this as a myth - or at least a phenomenon to be found only in faded photos from the 1970s.
But at last, I saw it! It was last Friday, and I was trying to get on the Sobu line back to Asakusabashi from the electronics town of Akihabara. The doors wouldn't properly close, because some of them had people half hanging out of them. So the guards had to go down the train from door to door forcing people in and the doors shut. I watched it leave, having missed the train without the slightest misgiving.
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Saturday, December 19, 2009